Your Best Nights Begin Here
Tour Cleveland with Stefan Was
The Best Nights section will take you on a local’s tour and journey through the eyes and personal experiences of artists, photographers, bloggers, musicians, etc., showcased in a different city every month. The month of August brings us to Cleveland, OH, where we meet living legend and industry icon Stefan Was and tour the best nights of his beautiful city.
Tour of Cleveland with
Stefan, thank you for joining us for the Cleveland edition of Behind the Shot. You're newer to the industry as a whole after spending many years in manufacturing. What got you into the hospitality industry?
I spent the better part of 30 years in the manufacturing and construction market. Having been through three recessions, 2008-2009 began some serious soul searching as to the future of my career path. Having dabbled in investment property, it seemed the most logical place to put my time and money. I always had my eye on this one building across the street from my home, but it was always timing whenever it became available or changed hands. The timing and money were right in 2011, and that's when it all began.
So, after purchasing the building, you had no intention to open a bar? That's a big leap not coming from the industry at all! What made you decide to take a stab at owning a bar?
I wasn't fully sure what was going to go in the building, which had mostly hosted a rotation of bars since the 1950s, decision time was here. My wife and I both have enjoyed the hospitality and cocktail culture together since the early 90s, most likely due to our respective parents' and grandparents' own hospitality and the home bars we grew up with. Everyone dreams of owning a bar or restaurant someday, but we took it a little more seriously, I guess. The decision was made to give it a go while we both maintained our current careers to see how it went, and we figured we could always rent it out if it failed. After two years, many late nights and weekends, with help from friends and family, we opened on October 5th, 2013.
You described yourself and your wife as "Private Yelpers" did that help influence your decision to open a bar by wanting to try to do things based on experiences as a consumer?
I say "Private" because Yelp didn't exist thirty years ago. Since we first dated, we've always enjoyed going out to drink. We enjoy time in the kitchen together, it truly is the cornerstone of our "quality time." A good experience at a bar or restaurant can make or break that time, and we always analyzed every little detail about it together. Music, decor, service, etc. It's almost as if the product (the actual food and drink) were the last thing we would care about. It was the sum of the entire experience and every little detail that worked in concert to achieve that. We just didn't know what to do with all the information, and by the time something like Yelp came out, it became more of a sounding board than an applicable tool.
The previous bar had a history of multiple music venues and a cocktail bar, correct?
The building never had a commercial kitchen, and we didn't really have the capital to build one out. Though we would have loved to, a full-service restaurant was out of the question. Our passion has always lied with the cocktail experience, but knowing little about the operational aspect, we knew it had to incorporate something we loved. Delving deeper into the cocktail history of it is fascinating and due in large part to the work of Jeff "Beachbum" Berry.
You built the bar in your spare time from your day job, mostly on weekends with friends and family? How was that experience? Any pros or cons?
Many of our friends and family are skilled, if not professional, trades. With our budget, opening the doors would have been impossible without the generosity and donation of their time and talents. The pros are obviously the savings as long as someone knows what they are doing. If inexperienced individuals take on a task outside their scope of expertise, it will most likely cost you more in time and money. My personal biggest pro is having that physical connection and reminder in the place I work every day. Some people have a photo on their desk; we have walls, floors, and plumbing all installed at the hands of friends and family.
The cons? Not everyone is blessed with an extremely generous family of skilled trades. If you try to fumble through it alone, it will take way more time, and it did for me on many occasions. If you have all the time and patience and are willing to learn a new skill while trying to build your bar, great!
Cleveland has a history with the Tiki concept dating back to the 60s. Was the revival of the history and scene of old Cleveland an inspiration?
Learning about Cleveland's connection to that history with the Kon Tiki restaurant from the 1960's pretty much sealed the deal for us. It's been great to still have that bridge in time to document it. So many people are still alive to share their stories and memories of the Kon Tiki. We love and are so proud of this city. We try to do anything we can to share and preserve its history, especially when it comes to its amazing hospitality and entertainment past.
You mentioned your favorite thing about your bar is the crown and its diversity. What makes the diversity so special?
I would say the fact that it comes organically, not by any sort of promotion or deceleration. People of all walks are here to have a good time. We never targeted a specific demographic, and it's so great to see what it becomes and, honestly, what all places of hospitality should be.
Coming from no background in the industry, I'm sure there were a lot of growing pains and learning by trial and error. You also mentioned that you've relied on staff to teach you as much as you've taught then. Can you elaborate on your experience learning the business along the way?
I try to approach all things as a student. As a guest, I pay attention to what relaxes, inspires, and brings me joy, and try to share that as a host. The mechanics of running a cocktail bar was completely new to me, so I had to, and still do, observe the amazing talents people bring to work daily. Our staff has been and continues to be incredible teachers to me. My approach has been as a guest, not a boss, or how it's been done or accepted across the industry. I offer how I, as a guest, would want to see it. This way, we both learn how to execute the best possible experience from both sides. Having a nontraditional approach to hospitality empowers both of us as long as the mission remains the same, satisfied guests. Numbers, inventory, recipes, etc... that's just general business anyone can learn. Executing great service and being fulfilled by your task of pleasing people are the hard things to learn. Yes, I have failed at the basics of this business on many levels, but as a student, you learn. We don't look at how it's been done but how we can do it better. The creativity is all them. I can help with mechanics or inspiration, but by the time that cocktail is in front of you, it is 100% the person that made it for you.
You're a very detail-oriented person in your personal life, going back to outings with your wife and watching and learning about the industry by enjoying other bars and restaurants for years. How has your attention to detail played into your day-to-day?
With the advent of technology and "foodies", everyone is a critic. We always have been, but now there is a platform for us to voice it. There are people that have literally made it a full-time, lucrative job. This has been great on many levels as it has maintained an almost real-time status as to where an establishment stands. When you're almost ten years in, and people are still discovering you, that's a great thing. Yes, you'll have the occasional one-star, but if you're consistently pleasing people, the numbers talk. We all love that little hole in the wall, but what's to stop you from creating that atmosphere at high volume? There are nights we personally wouldn't patronize our own bar because it's not the atmosphere we're looking for on that occasion. We've taken things from the smallest to the biggest and applied them where we see fit. Be it certain glassware, the way a guest is greeted and given a menu, or simply what type of ice is used. Things guests don't (and shouldn't) think about but somehow go into the sum total of their overall great experience. I've stressed over some of the dumbest shit, and some matters, some don't. Guests and staff have endured most of it, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing it click with someone as it did for me.
It would be difficult not to describe you as a mentor or leader, but you prefer to be considered more of an ambassador of your city. At 400k people, Cleveland is a small market and very blue collar, and you've said it's your job to let outsiders know how cool Cleveland is but also do what's right for Cleveland and its people. What are some pros and cons of being a small market that can often be overlooked?
We get the rap here: "Oh yeah, that was so NY/LA, etc...like five years ago." Cool, we don't care. If an idea is good, we'll run with it. If it can be accepted and survive in Cleveland, it's gold. Cleveland will kick your ass because we're loyal to it unconditionally. We consistently support teams that rarely, if ever, earn us titles. We live in a fickle climate that produces a handful of perfect days a year; the rest just builds character. That character is loyal to this city and doesn't care how cool or popular something is or is somewhere else. We do what we want, what survives, what wins for us, and we support those that do as well. If you get that, you'll get "Cleveland Love". Even in the small world of Tiki, some folks like to define it, say it's this, that, or the other. There's no defined playlist, recipe, uniform, art, or decor, it's just what we do with no apologies. It's something impossible to do in a big market where you need to either be hyper-specialized and unique at something or be watered down and cater to the broadest audience possible. Here, you can just be yourself, and you'll be loved and supported for it. Visitors with an open mind and heart can experience it; just step out of your comfort zone and into ours.
What is your favorite drink or way to enjoy Jägermeister?
I came across Jägermeister, as most do, in college. I also had the unique opportunity in the early '90s to study in Germany with my soon-to-be wife. As some may or may not know, it's handled a little differently over there and regarded mostly as a digestif, which was enlightening. I had a bit of a sweet tooth back in the day, so much of my experience was Jägermeister and Coke. It was funny the looks I would get when ordered, but it honestly just spoke to my pallet at the time. As time went on, I got further away from it and moved on to other spirits. It wasn't until about 20 years later we stumbled into this new little NYC bar, Amor y Amargo. My wife and I were sussing out the final details of Porco, and from the first day, we met proprietor Sother Teague, the world of Amari spirits and hospitality was opened up to me. It is now arguably my favorite category of spirits and has given me a newfound respect for products like Jägermeister. As always, a spirit should be enjoyed however you want it, but it was time for me to dismiss it simply as a party shot (though you'd likely find me calling for it if a round was in order). I suggest taking some thoughtful alone time with it. Have a neat pour at room temp and think about it. It has a lot to say, and like a good friend, you should listen to it with intention.
Hopefully, all our readers are looking for flights to Cleveland right now! If you had one day to experience the best of your city, what are some must-do things to see, eat, drink, or do?
We have a great beer scene going on in our city. The list is endless, and breweries within walking distance will make walking a task in short order. In our small Ohio City/Tremont neighborhood alone, you have Forest City Brewery, Great Lakes Brewing, Market Garden Brewery, Nano Brew, and countless craft brew pubs (Tremont Tap House is a fave, and their brewery is downtown Butcher & the Brewer) all within blocks of one another. Craft cocktails have seen enormous elevation on all menus, but stalwarts like LBM, Spotted Owl, Society Lounge, and The Velvet Tango Room will always be on everyone's shortlist. Food is an ever-changing landscape and largely depends on what you're into. Our goto is SOHO Chicken+Whiskey. Aside from having the best-fried chicken in the city, their bourbon selection is deep and well-curated. What's even better is what they do with it in cocktails, and the service is downright unparalleled. For the most no-frills "Cleveland" experience, The Rowly Inn or Prosperity Social Club.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.